Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Nearly 30 years ago, when musician and musicologist Henry Sapoznik first stumbled across a cache of aluminum transcription disks of Yiddish radio shows from interwar America, little did he suspect that they would find a home at the Library of Congress.
Abandoned in an attic, deposited in a dumpster, the stuff of rummage and tag sales, these acoustic artifacts, which ranged from “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” to Stuhmer’s “Pumpernickel Program,” were destined to fade away entirely had not Sapoznik recognized their value and saved them, often just in the nick of time.
But then, this stalwart champion of American Jewry’s vernacular culture did even more than that. Working together with the award-winning radio producer Dave Isay and the celebrated sound preservationist Andy Lanset, he made sure, for one thing, to preserve this material.
Allan Lewis Rickman likes to say that the best audiences for “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum” are gentile college students — a demographic that seemed (shockingly!) underrepresented at the show’s opening NYC Fringe Festival performance at the Robert Moss Theater on August 14. More than a few people in this crowd murmured recognition of familiar tunes and might have kept right on laughing at jokes in Yiddish even if Matt Temkin’s excellent English supertitles had malfunctioned.
When a language is said to be dying, it’s always gratifying to see so many of its champions in one place — and yet, though I’m not a college student, I wonder whether, as a theater fan who doesn’t know a lick of Yiddish, I’m closer to the target audience Rickman and co-creators Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman and Steve Sterner envisioned for the piece. What they’ve created is a brisk introduction to Yiddish theater in the vein of “Schoolhouse Rock”: You’re meant to be so swept up in the fun that you don’t realize you’re learning all about a subject that, like grammar or math, some folks (incorrectly) imagine to be dull.
The show hums along at a cheerful clip, with Shmulenson-Rickman and Sterner taking turns at the piano as all three performers cycle through various roles in memorable snippets from Yiddish plays and musicals. Between scenes, they address the audience as chirpy, wide-eyed versions of themselves, telling the story of Yiddish theater worldwide and posing surprisingly direct questions like, “Is theater better if it’s in Yiddish?” These narrative interludes are wisely kept brief and accessible even to those with no Jewish background or prior knowledge of Yiddish culture: At one point, for example, Shmulenson-Rickman pauses to give a succinct definition of the word “shtetl.”
What’s your socialist bubbe got to do with the Queen of Pop? That’s the question at the heart of “The Material World,” the new Dan Fishback musical headlining this summer’s HOT! Festival at New York City’s Dixon Place. The setting for the show is a dream-world 1920s Bronx boarding house where a family of Russian Jewish socialists lives with Madonna, Britney Spears and a gay teenager plotting a Facebook revolution.
Though Fishback, a 30-year-old playwright, performance artist and 2007 recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, cautions that the play isn’t strictly autobiographical, “The Material World” draws inspiration from his family’s socialist roots. His great-grandfather was sent to Siberia after the 1905 revolution and, following a daring escape from Russia (hidden under a train car, according to Fishback family lore), found his way to the Bronx and became the chief compositor of the Forverts. As girls, Fishback’s paternal grandmother and her two sisters were members of the Young People’s Socialist League, and were raised in a household where the prominent socialist writers of the time stopped by to debate politics around the kitchen table.
A fourth-generation activist, Fishback demonstrated against the Iraq war as a college student in the early 2000s, following in the footsteps of his father, who was involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ’70s. “I grew up thinking Martin Luther King Day was a Jewish holiday because we celebrated it in shul,” Fishback told the Forward in a recent interview. Political commitment was valued so strongly among his family members and their circle of friends, he said, that he grew up viewing the revolutionary spirit as more essential to Jewish identity than religious belief. “My grandmother sort of humored my parents by joining our synagogue,” Fishback said, “but she would turn to me in the middle of a service and whisper, ‘God doesn’t exist.’” (Her sister was Ruth Barcan Marcus, the noted philosopher and logician who died in February.)
We can now add Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan Republic in the Russian Federation, to the list of cities that host international Jewish music festivals. Early in June, the city was the site of Tatarstan’s first-ever Jewish music festival, which featured performances by artists from the U.S., Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Austria and Cuba.
Tatarstan is located about 500 miles east of Moscow, and Kazan is considered one of Russia’s largest cities. Most of the 3.8 million people living in the republic are either ethnic Tatars or ethnic Russians, and over half of them are Sunni Muslims.
Organizer Boris Lvovich, who put the event together along with Edward Tumansky, explained the importance of a Jewish music festival in predominantly Muslim Tatarstan, to The Kazan Herald. “I am first of all a native Kazan resident. I’ve worked with so many Tatar musicians and performers I can even understand some Tatar, yet I think it is paramount to understand that for a Muslim Republic such as Tatarstan to hold a Jewish Music festival is very symbolic of the peace we enjoy here,” he said.
The National Endowment for the Arts announced today that klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman is among the recipients of its 2012 National Heritage Fellowships. The Brooklyn-based musician will be awarded the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts during a ceremony in the fall.
Reached at his home in Midwood, the 61-year-old bluegrass and klezmer virtuoso told The Arty Semite, “To be placed in the same league as my heroes Bill Monroe, Dave Taras and B.B. King is a tremendous honor.”
Statman is an Orthodox Jew and the decision to schedule the National Heritage Fellowships ceremony and concert on Thursday, October 4, rather than on a Friday night, was made in part to accommodate Statman, according to Liz Auclair, a spokesperson for the National Endowment for the Arts. Auclair said there will be kosher food at the banquet for Statman and his wife, Basha.
Statman and his band went to back up his teacher Dave Tarras at a concert in Washington, D.C. in 1984 when Tarras won the National Heritage Fellowship. The elderly klezmer clarinetist collapsed and suffered a heart attack during the first song, so Statman stood in for him during the performance.
Tonight, renowned Yiddish music anthologist Chana Gordon Mlotek will be honored at The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s annual gala for her life’s work preserving Yiddish folklore.
Mlotek, the author of nine books on Yiddish music, has an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject. Now 90, she grew up in the Bronx immersed in Yiddish culture. In 1944, she began working at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research as assistant to Max Weinreich, one of YIVO’s founders and its director of research. While attending the first-ever Yiddish folklore class at University of California Los Angeles, taught by Weinreich in 1948, she met her future husband, Joseph (Yosl) Mlotek.
The couple married in 1949 and settled in New York, where Yosl Mlotek was the director of education at the Workmen’s Circle. In 1970, Chana and Yosl began writing a bi-weekly column for the Forverts called “Perl fun der Yiddisher Poezie” (Pearls of Yiddish Poetry). Readers would submit snippets of songs they recalled from their youth, and the Mloteks — in detective mode — would identify and write about the songs. Chana returned to YIVO in 1978, becoming its music archivist in 1984, and has been there ever since. She spoke to The Arty Semite about the history and future of Yiddish music.
Renee Ghert-Zand: What inspired you to make Yiddish music your life’s work?
The first time Anthony Russell heard Sidor Belarsky (1898-1975), on the soundtrack for the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man,” he thought it was Paul Robeson singing in Yiddish. Russell, an African-American classically trained operatic bass, wasn’t yet familiar with work of the Ukrainian-American opera singer and conservator of Jewish music, but he was drawn in by the deep, dark timbre of Belarsky’s voice.
After devouring Belarsky recordings available through Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, Russell was hooked, and the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. After a decade performing on operatic stages in New York and in the San Francisco Bay Area, Russell was ready for a change. And as a recent convert to Judaism, he was looking for opportunities to perform for Jewish audiences.
Since then Russell has been performing Yiddish works from Sidor Belarsky’s songbook at New York City venues such as the Sholom Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, the JCC in Manhattan and the Hebrew Actors Union, and even for Belarsky’s 91-year-old daughter, Isabel, at her home in Brighton Beach. In August he’ll travel to Toronto to sing at the Ashkenaz Festival.
The Arty Semite recently caught up with Russell to talk about Yiddish art song, Brahms and opera — and about what Paul Robeson and Sidor Belarsky might have in common, after all.
Eileen Reynolds: Did you know any Yiddish when you started the Belarsky project?
The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene has announced that it will be creating a new, bi-annual international festival of Jewish performing arts, the New York Times reports. “Kulturfest,” which will also be named after Yiddish preservationist and anthologist Chana Mlotek, will begin in 2015, to coincide with the Folksbiene’s 100th anniversary. It will be officially presented at the organization’s upcoming June 12 gala, at which Mlotek will be honored along with Neil Sedaka and H. Jay Wisnicki.
The festival represents one of the Folksbiene’s first major initiatives since appointing Bryna Wasserman as its executive director in June 2011. Previously Wasserman served as the head of the Segal Centre in Montreal, where she spearheaded an International Yiddish Theater Festival in 2009 and 2011. The Folksbiene currently is one of two Yiddish theater companies operating in New York City, along with New Yiddish Rep.
The theater has received $250,000 from the Stanley and Marion Bergman Charitable Fund and the Mlotek Family Foundation to produce the festival. It aims to raise another $2 million for the event, the Times reports. The festival will feature a range of performances and performers including “theatres, musical groups… filmmakers and media artists from around the world whose work creatively explores, either directly or indirectly, the Jewish identity.”
According to a statement by Wasserman, Kulturfest will be “the first international festival of Jewish performing arts in New York City” and will incorporate an academic symposium in addition to performances.
A crowd will gather in downtown Toronto on June 7 for the 2012 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards. One of the winners will be Rebecca Margolis, an associate professor in the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program at the University of Ottawa, who will be honored for “Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil” (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), a study of the development of Yiddish cultural life in Montreal in the first half of the 20th century. In the book, Margolis examines key cultural institutions like the press, the theater, literary publications and secular Jewish schools that built and sustained Yiddish Montreal.
“This is a huge and very pleasant surprise, and a great honor,” Margolis told The Arty Semite in a recent phone interview.
Edward Trapunski, a member of the CJA’s panel of judges, believes the award is much deserved. His own father had been very active in Montreal’s Yiddish community and served on the executive boards of many of its institutions.
Since moving to Manhattan to launch his performing career 17 years ago, composer, playwright and actor Taylor Mac has graced stages from Sydney to Spoleto to San Francisco. But the Obie Award-winning artist has never been invited to perform uptown — until now. On May 24, at The JCC in Manhattan, Mac will premiere “Sleep Fast! We Need the Pillow!” an exploration of Jewish popular music and “tenement songs” from 1900 to 1910. It’s one slice of Mac’s insanely ambitious “A 24-hour History of Popular Music,” in which he plans to sing 300 songs from different eras for 24 consecutive hours sometime next year. The Arty Semite caught up with the bearded Mac — who’s been known to appear bewigged, painted blue, dressed as a giant flower, or all of the above — in the coffee bar of Manhattan’s Classic Stage Company, where he was performing as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Downtown doyen carried a copy of “Songs of Generations: New Pearls of Yiddish Song” under his arm.
Michael Kaminer: Can you explain the title of your JCC performance, “Sleep Fast! We Need the Pillow”?
Taylor Mac: It’s about the Lower East Side tenements. What interested me was that this was the first time I was being asked in 17 years to perform uptown. I perform all over the world. But in New York City, I feel very stuck in my ghetto, very segregated. My ghetto just happens to be the East Village and Lower East Side, where Jews all used to live in tenements. It’s ironic and beautiful that the first time I’m being asked to go outside my neighborhood is by a community that used to live in my neighborhood.
What distinguishes the work of Jewish songwriters in the period you’re covering?
In conjunction with its conference on “Jews and the Left” (see our story here), the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has prepared an outstanding exhibition called “Shades of Red: Yiddish Left-Wing Press in America,” curated by Krysia Fisher and on view until September, 2012. Among the highlights of the exhibition is a series of arresting covers for the Communist monthly Der Hammer, many of them by William Gropper (1897-1977), one of America’s most significant social realist illustrators and painters.
Gropper’s is a classic Jewish American story. His immigrant parents settled on the Lower East Side and worked in the garment industry. He lost an aunt in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which some scholars cite as the reason for his politics. Though, as the conference demonstrated, radicalism was a vibrant part of Jewish life at the time.
Gropper studied art in public school and a portfolio of his work led Frank Parsons to admit him to the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons The New School For Design). Gropper worked as an illustrator for Yiddish and English publications including The New York Tribune, The Liberator, The Masses, The New Masses, Vanity Fair and, of course, Der Hammer.
Sheva Zucker’s late mother Miriam was still attending a women’s Yiddish reading group in Winnipeg until just a few months before she died last January at age 97. So, even before her mother passed away, Zucker knew what the best way would be to memorialize her.
“My mother was never a shul-goer, and davening is not the fullest expression of my Judaism, either,” Zucker, executive director of the League for Yiddish, told The Arty Semite. “I wanted some way some other than just saying Kaddish that was more meaningful for her and for me.”
That desire led Zucker to create a blog titled “*Liderlikht,” or “Candles of Song,” within weeks of her mother’s passing. The blog, on which she posts Yiddish poems about mothers, went live on February 9. Each week, she posts a different poem in its original Yiddish, with English translation and transliteration. She also includes a brief biography of each poet.
“Candles of Song” comes from a line in the first poem Zucker posted, “Frum” (Piously), by Rashel Veprinski: “Piously as my mother the waxen wicks / I light my candle of song.” Veprinski (1896-1981) came to New York from Ukraine in 1907, and began writing poetry at age 15. She was first published in 1918 in the journal “Di Naye Velt,” and she went on to write several books of poetry, as well as an autobiographical novel, short stories, and many articles for Yiddish periodicals. From the 1920s she lived with the famous Yiddish writer Mani Leyb, until his death in 1953.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Over the last three years many Yiddish cultural organizations in New York have relocated to new homes. The Forverts and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring sold their building on East 33rd Street in Manhattan and their tenants, including the League for Yiddish, the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater, Yugntruf–Youth for Yiddish and Living Traditions had to find new locations.
For many years the Atran Center for Jewish Culture on 21st Street in Manhattan housed the offices of the Congress for Jewish Culture, CYCO Yiddish Bookstore and Publishing House, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Bund. The Bund closed down several years ago, and the Atran Foundation decided to sell the three floors of the building that they owned.
Since 2005, the New Worlds Theatre Project has been presenting classic Yiddish drama in English translation. This season they’re presenting a new English translation of H. Leivick’s 1921 play “Shmates,” here called “Welcome to America,” a naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of American capitalism on a traditional Jewish immigrant family.
In the notes to the play, director Stephen Fried charts its artistic lineage from Leivick’s original script to the work of Clifford Odets and later to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” With this production it’s a fair connection to make. Artistic Director Ellen Perecman’s translation and adaptation highlights the painful shuffle of traditional hierarchies that inevitably follow the entry into American style capitalism.
The production is tightly paced and features some excellent performances, especially from Alice Cannon and Donald Warfield as matriarch and patriarch Rokhl-Leye and Mordechai Maze. The Maze’s very modern, very materialistic daughter has just gotten married, without seeking the permission of her father. What’s worse, she has married her father’s boss’s son. Now Mordechai has to face the double humiliation of being a rag sorter working for his own son-in-law.
On May 15, Speakers’ Lab and the Forward will present a moderated town hall-style event called “Now What? The Future of New Jewish Culture” at the 14th Street Y in downtown New York City. In preparation for the event, each panelist was asked to respond to a question related to his or her work. The Forward will publish one panelist’s response every Tuesday leading up to the event, and a second panelist’s response will be published on Speakers’ Lab’s website that same day.
This week Rokhl Kafrissen, Yiddish arts critic, writes about why she’s a Yiddishist. On Speakers’ Lab, Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, writes about the Jewish community’s investment in culture, and David Jordan Harris, executive director of Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, writes about the Jewish arts scene in Minnesota.
Speakers’ Lab: You’ve written about the importance of promoting Yiddish, and your experience learning more about Jewishness by studying Yiddish than from years at Conservative Hebrew school. How important do you think Yiddish is for the future of American Jewish culture? If Yiddish grew out of Jews’ interactions with other cultures in Eastern Europe at a specific time and place, why not encourage American Jewish culture to develop the same way? Do you think English is insufficient as a potential Jewish language?
Rokhl Kafrissen: When they find out I’m a Yiddishist, people often ask if I grew up in a Yiddish speaking home. The answer is no. My parents did not speak the language, although now and again they dropped a Yiddish word or phrase. But it was a long time before I connected those isolated words and phrases to an actual language.
When Yiddish writer Chaim Grade died in 1982 he was highly regarded in Yiddish literary circles, though less known to English readers. Only a few of his novels had been translated, and hardly any of his poetry. He was also overshadowed by his more famous contemporary, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
In the years following Grade’s death more of his work was brought out in English, including his great novelistic memoir, “My Mother’s Sabbath Days,” in 1986. But because Grade’s widow, Inna Hecker Grade, protected his legacy with fervor tantamount to obstructionism, readers and literary scholars found him increasingly inaccessible. All that changed with Inna Grade’s passing in May, 2010.
“In the years after his death there was a lot of interest, but Inna’s cease and desist letters and obstructions pull a chill on the interest. And now it’s possible to work on the topic,” said David Fishman, a professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a lecturer at a recent conference on Grade held at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. “We couldn’t have done this until now,” added Book Center Founder and President Aaron Lansky, alluding to Inna Grade’s opposition. “It was just too difficult.”
Titled “Sabbath Days and Extinguished Stars: The Life and Work of Chaim Grade,” the conference was the latest example of reawakened interest in the writer. It follows a 100th anniversary celebration of Grade’s birth, held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in October 2010, and a staged reading of a play based on “My Mother’s Sabbath Days” by the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene in the spring of 2011. On June 3, a tribute to both Grade and Singer will be held at the Museum at Eldridge Street in Manhattan, cosponsored by the Yiddish Book Center and featuring Harvard professor Ruth Wisse.
Crossposted from Haaretz
At the end of his visit to Israel in 1927, Sholem Asch, a leading Yiddish writer, wrote his impressions of Tel Aviv. “When you walk on the street, a Jew is walking in front of you; a Jew is walking behind you. Wherever you don’t look, Jewish eyes are watching you. It is a strange feeling you experience while walking the streets of Tel Aviv knowing that from one end of the city to the other, you are surrounded by Jews, like in a synagogue or a beit midrash (house of study); it is like a synagogue on the street. You can do anything, say anything. I swear I myself had the urge to utter the slur Zhid (Jew boy).”
Tel Aviv may be known as the first Hebrew city, whose residents often struggled with the language of Eastern European Jews, but from its early days, a glorious Yiddish culture thrived there. Yaad Biran, a researcher of Yiddish culture and a tour guide calls the city “a forgotten city, Jewish and cosmopolitan, exciting and entertaining.”
On May 4, Biran will lead “Between Yiddish-land and Alte-neue Land,” a new tour of Tel Aviv under the auspices of the Discover Tel Aviv Center. Biran explains, “We will see the city together with the Yiddish writers who visited or lived there and wrote about it with wisdom and humor in their mother tongue.” The tour will feature writers such as Sholem Asch and Hayyim Nachman Bialik, and Jewish organizations such as the Bund and Poalei Zion, as well as the Schund Theater and the satirical performances of the Yiddish comic duo of Dzigan and Shumacher. The meeting place is the founders’ monument on Rothschild Street at 10 am.
A version of this post originally appeared in the Forverts
Boris Sandler is best known as Editor-in-Chief of the Forverts, where he is my editor and boss. Less known is his role as an indefatigable cultural activist, who is involved in many other undertakings. One of his current projects is an effort to preserve 10 contemporary Yiddish writers on film, talking about themselves and their paths through Yiddish literature. The most recent of these, “Yosl Birshteyn: A Kiss in Jerusalem,” will be screened on April 24 at YIVO, and will be introduced by Birshteyn’s daughter, Hanna Inbar.
Until one hears and sees the subjects of Sandler’s films, it’s hard to understand the monumental importance of this project. It demonstrates a remarkable foresight into the value of these writers and their stories, as well as a high level of literary taste. Of the intended 10 films in the series three have been produced so far, about the writers Shira Gorshman and Misha Lev, in addition to Birshteyn. A fourth film, about Abraham Karpinovitch, is currently in the works.
A version of this post originally appeared in Yiddish here.
Filmmaker Menachem Daum, whose 2004 documentary, “Hiding and Seeking,” portrayed his journey to Poland to search for the peasant family that rescued his father-in-law during the Holocaust, has been busy at work on his next project: a film about Shlomo Carlebach’s historic concert tour of Poland in 1989.
Carlebach, or Reb Shlomo as he was known to his followers, was a master storyteller, singer and composer of hundreds (some say, thousands) of songs and nigunim that continue to be sung at prayer services in synagogues throughout the world, years after his passing in 1994.
By day, as photo and film archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Jesse Aaron Cohen tends to thousands of images of bygone Jewish culture. By night, he’s half of the Brooklyn-based “existential pop” duo Tanlines, whose new album, “Mixed Emotions,” will sound “absolutely stupendous when you’re driving during the daytime with your windows down all spring and summer,” according to the online music bible Stereogum.
Along with glowing reviews, the album’s spawned Tanlines’ first indie-radio hit, the hazy, pulsating “Brothers.” Back in his YIVO office after a whirlwind week of performances and shmoozing at the massive South by Southwest Music Festival, in Austin, Texas, “30-something” Cohen spent a few minutes with The Arty Semite.
Michael Kaminer: What was South by Southwest like for you and your Tanlines partner, Eric Emm?
Jesse Aaron Cohen: The shows were really good; we met our fans and did our job. At South by Southwest, you don’t have much time. You set up, play and think it’s terrible. Then someone tells you that you were amazing. It’s a microcosm of a career in music in general.
Your faces are on the cover of “Mixed Emotions” in close-up. Is that weird?
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